Gazetteer of the Western Front: Achicourt

Location

Achicourt is village or small town in the Pas de Calais near the city of Arras.
50°16’24.4″N 2°45’27.5″E or 50.273430, 2.757638

Map

A present day map of the Arras area.

Achicourt on the Cassini map c.1750. Names that would be well-known in the Great War already evident.

Map

A 1915 British map of the area. These days Achicourt is more or less a continuous suburb of the expanded Arras but during the Great War was a quite separate community.

History

Developed alongside the small river Crinchon, the village had names in far off times Arcicortis (1047), Harchicurt (12th Century) and Hachicourt. It has an ancient history, traces having been found of habitation in the 1st Century BC. For centuries it was a small, rural village largely reliant on local agriculture and market gardening for its employment and income.

The Moulin la Tourelle was one of several windmills that were at one time situated on the Butte de Caumont, a slope east of the village. The mill traced origins as far back as 1361, although a wooden structure had been replaced by a brick tower and outlying cottages and other buildings in the 1840s. It was originally an oil mill but later used for flour grinding.

The village population in 1911 was 2160.

Town hall

The town hall of Achicourt before the Great War. A postcard image: with thanks to Delcampe for its use. Mr. Théodore Legrand, the mayor since 1912, did not leave the village until October 1915 when it came under violent bombardment.

Church

The church of St. Vaast before the Great War. Author’s collection.

Life at Achicourt changed with the coming of the railways (and even the bicycle, making Arras a quicker journey). It brought the need to house railway workers that resulted in the construction of part of the expanded village known as “Petit Bapaume”.

This 1914 map of the railway network operated by the Chemins de Fer du Nord does not name Achicourt but its position can be seen. Note the black main line running from Arras to Amiens and its junction with a white smaller line going to St. Pol. A branch line to Doullens also split away in this area. All of these lines became vital to French, and later British, supply into the Arras sector. The junction lay just to the east of Achicourt: when war came it made the village an ideal location for a supply railhead but also an obvious target for German attention.

The Arras to Ameins railway passes Achicourt. The rear of the church of St . Vaast and its surrounding wall can just be seen on the left. A postcard image: with thanks to Geneanet for its use.

Achicourt railway junction and signal box, circa 1910. Public domain.

Houses on rue Milanais which would see much use as billets during the Great War. Thanks to annuaire-mairie.fr for use of this image.

The Great War comes to Achicourt

War came quickly to Achicourt: on 15 August 1914 it suffered its first loss with the death of local man Caporal Aurélien-Germain Hee of the 33e régiment d’infanterie, killed at Dinant in Belgium. He would later be one of the 59 military names listed on the village war memorial. Another 30 civilian villagers also lost their lives.

Fighting first approached the village during the “race to the sea” in the première bataille d’Arras also called bataille de l’Artois (1st Battle of Arras or Battle of Artois) on 1-14 October 1914. From that point onwards until the summer of 1918 it was never far from the front line. The front line stabilised to the east and trench warfare commenced.

An example of French losses at Achicourt. From the Mémoire des Hommes database with thanks. A second copy includes the information that Danilo was ” tué à l’ennemi (killed in action)” although this one suggests “blessures de guerre (died of wounds”). He actually died at Achicourt on 6 October 1914 according to the war diary of his unit. Danilo had already received a slight wound during the Battle of Guise in August 1914.

Son of an armourer, Alexandre Mathurin Marie Danilo was born on April 28, 1879 in Bains-sur-Oust. He seems to have long been destined to the priesthood before embracing the career of arms. Lieutenant in the 6th company at the time of the general mobilization, Danilo had lived in Saint-Servan and Saint-Malo. Beginning on November 14, 1899, his military career with the 70th Infantry Regiment as a Private Second Class, ADanilo was admitted as an Officer Cadet at the Military School of Infantry of Saint-Maixent on March 14, 1906. Promoted to Sous-Lieutenant in 1907, he was assigned to the 94th IR and then, two years later, became a Lieutenant, promotion which was accompanied by a transfer to the 47th IR. The records of the parish of Saint-Servan state that he wrote on August 2, 1914: “War is declared. I would say almost so much better because it all augurs victory. All the reservists arrive at full speed. It’s a real pleasure. Everyone must do their duty. For my part, I go away and make the sacrifice of my life. I will sell it dear. I made the promise to go to St. Anne on my return.”

An article found at Geneanet.org (translater by Google], quoting sources Arch. Dép. I&V: 10 NUM 35013 602 et 1 R 1894.1627; SHD-DAT : 26 N 636/6, JMO 47eRI; BAVCC/Mémoire des homme ; Paroisse de Saint-Servan, Livre d’Or des Morts pour la Patrie, Rennes, Imprimerie Oberthur, 1920. p. 122-123; Annuaire officiel d’Ille-et-Vilaine, Rennes, Imprimerie François Simon, 1913, p. 184; Arch. Mun. Saint-Malo : fonds Daniel Poncet des Nouailles.

Inevitably, Achicourt began to come under German artillery fire. The windmill was first hit by a shell in 1915 but by war’s end was no more than rubble. Achicourt itself was damaged but appears to have remained largely intact until 8 August 1917.

Windmill

The windmill on its way to complete destruction. A postcard image: with thanks to Delcampe for its use.

The British come to Achicourt

The expanding British Expeditionary Force eventually took over the Arras sector, with Third Army taking over from the French from 14 March 1916. VI Corps was designated for the Achicourt area and relieved the French 9th Corps. Its 14th (Light) Division was moved into Achicourt and Agny on 29 February and 1 March. It found the situation generally quiet, with occasional shelling of Achicourt and Agny. Units coming into the area thereafter usually reported that they had good billets.

From a map included with the war diary of the staff at headquarters of 14th (Light) Division, drawn soon after the division moved into the area. National Archives WO95/1865. Crown copyright. Note the communication trenches “Havannah Street”, “Haig Street”, “Hardy Street” and “HC Line” than began on the eastern side of the Amiens railway and snaked out towards Beaurains. Note also the location of the church: its post-war rebuild was on a different site, near the “n” of Crinchon.

Destruction on 8 April 1917

The 56th (London) Division returned to the area in early March 1917 in the build-up of forces that would shortly attack in the Battle of Arras. Achicourt mainly fell into their designated area. Their field companies of Royal Engineers moved in to work on dugouts and roads, while various dumps and headquarters were established in and around the village. Many artillery batteries were also situated around Achicourt.

From the National Archives, war diary General Staff of VII Corps, WO95/805. Crown copyright. The area of operations of the divisions under command of the corps during the Battle of Arras.

From the National Archives, war diary General Staff of VII Corps, WO95/805. Crown copyright. The area of operations of the divisions under command of the corps during the Battle of Arras. With marked transport routes and locations of various headquarters.

As the British artillery stepped up its preliminary bombardment before the infantry attack, which eventually began on 9 April 1917, the German guns inevitably retaliated. There were no better target than Achicourt, which was known to be crammed with men and material – and just at the wrong moment was also the scene of a traffic jam. The results were horrific.

The war diary of the 1/16th London Regiment (Queen’s Westminster Rifles), a battalion briefly billeted in the village, reads,

At about 1am a few shells were fired into Achicourt with the result that a barn adjoining one of the “A” Company billets caught fire. “A” Company turned out immediately and their efforts prevented the fire from spreading. At about noon the town was again shelled. “B” Company HQ received a direct hit, causing part of the building to collapse, thereby inflicting many casualties on a platoon of men of this company who were taking shelter in the building. The shelling ceased about  pm, but started again at 2pm. This time a lorry loaded with 9.2″ ammunition was hit and immediately burst into flames. The fire spread to adjacent lorries, until in all there were twenty burning. After a time the ammunition began to explode and some of the houses in the square began to blaze. A great deal of damage was caused by this fire, many billets being burned and a large quantity of stores and equipment buried beneath the ruins.

Later that night the Queen’s Westminsters moved to the front line trenches near Beaurains. On 8 April the battalion lost one officer and 16 men killed, with another 31 wounded. Many if not all of them became casualties in the fire and explosions in Achicourt. Three of the men died of wounds and lie in Warlincourt Halte British Cemetery; three were originally buried in the churchyard extension in Achicourt but were exhumed from there after the war and reburied in Agny Military Cemetery where all the rest of their comrades lie.

One man, Pte M2/149504 James Sandars, was killed and another four seriously wounded when serving with 283 (Mechanical Transport) Company of the Army Service Corps. It was known by its sub-title of VII or “G” Corps Siege Park and was carrying ammunition for 226 Siege Battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery. Sandars also lies in Agny Military Cemetery. The company’s war diary reads,

Received message at 5.30pm from 2/Lt Overend that 17 lorries had been destroyed by hostile shell fire in Achicourt. These lorries were proceeding to gun positions with ammunition. He believes that military police caused the block.

Rfmn Aubrey Smith, a horse transport driver with the 1/5th London Regiment, graphically described the situation in his memoir “Four years on the Western Front”. He recalled being in his billet in Achicourt in which “every house … had been crammed full of ammunition” and “a traffic muddle of some magnitude” before

The first we knew of it was when a loud explosion occurred – the biggest we had ever heard – which violently shook the ground and brought various bricks down from the roof into our dinner plates – or thereabouts. … Less than half a mile away an enormous pillar of grey smoke had arisen high in the air, and this was followed by another, the sound of the second explosion being even greater than the first. … The pall hanging over Achicourt … had hardly begun to be disseminated when another geyser of black smoke shot upwards, carrying with it doubtless many unlucky individuals apart from the countless thousands of pounds’ worth of shells. … All through the afternoon one big explosion followed another until it hardly seemed possible that there could be any portion of the dumps untouched.

The 1/2nd Londons had only just arrived in the area and were halted while they waited for congestion to ease,before they moved off later that night to the line at Beaurains. Their diary reads,

Achicourt was heavily shelled during the day, and from the field in which the battalion was halted, several dumps in Achicourt were seen to explode. Explosions were caused by a certain part of the village catching fire.

The village was never the same again.

Imperial War Museum photograph Q61259. With thanks. British troops in the ruined town square of Achicourt, 30 June 1917.

IWM photograph Q61258. Ruined church and the communal cemetery at Achicourt, 30 June 1917.

Achicourt remained in British hands throughout the rest of the Great War.

IWM photograph Q11014. British soldier watching a French peasant harrowing at a farm at Achicourt, 27 May 1918. Photographer: 2/Lt Thomas Keith Aitken.

Reconstruction

The Church of St. Vaast was rebuilt but in a different location in 1924-25. Parts of the cemetery that surrounded the original church still exist and the site has now been expanded into a larger communal cemetery.

The village war memorial was constructed on the rue Raoul Briquet facing the new church and was inaugurated in 1924. There is also a plaque memorial inside the church of St. Vaast.

Achicourt’s town hall was rebuilt on the original site on the main square but bears little resemblance to the original. It has since been extended and modified. Although the road layout is much the same and the communal cemetery is also (at least in part) on its original site, reconstruction and 1960s urbanisation means that the village would probably not be recognised by its former inhabitants and the soldiers who passed through here.

The windmill was rebuilt 1991-1994 and is now an emblem of the town.

To recognise its role and martyrdom, Achicourt was decorated with the Croix de Guerre.

A view of the reconstructed square thanks to Google Maps. The new town hall is on the right.

Agny Military Cemetery lies just south of the centre of Achicourt. According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, “Agny Military Cemetery was begun by French troops, and used by Commonwealth units and field ambulances from March 1916 to June 1917. Two further burials were made in April 1918, and in 1923-24, 137 graves were brought in from the battlefields east of Arras. The 40 French graves have been removed. Agny Military Cemetery contains 408 Commonwealth burials of the First World War, 118 of them unidentified, and five German graves. The cemetery was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.” The earliest British burials are those of men of 14th (Light) Division who died within days of the division taking over the Achicourt area in early March 1916.

Links

Gazetteer of the Western Front

Battle of Arras, 1917

Achicourt website (French)

La Tourelle mill website (French)